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Eiffel, English and Erlang

E is for Eiffel, English and Erlang.

Eiffel was a contender to be THE OO language of choice for developers. The Bertrand Meyer‘s book on how to write OO software using Eiffel blew me away, I was convinced that this was the way forward. But to be widely used a language needs popular compilers on the mainstream platforms and Meyer’s Eiffel compiler was a commercial product of a company he had started around the language. Eiffel may have been a much better language than C++ back in 1986 (or even today), but Cfront was available for free, for non-commercial use, and the Zortech C++ compiler came out at a very low price point in 1988 (developers hate paying for the tools of their trade). Meyer and his research group are still plugging away at Eiffel today and it probably has supporters all around the world, but I have never met one.

English is effortlessly spoken by hundreds of millions of people; how much easier programming would be if it could be done in English. The fact that little effort is required to see through this idea on so many levels (not least of which is the fact that most people are terrible at writing English) has not prevented a few misguided souls implementing the idea in some form or another. Grace Hopper can be forgiven for thinking that using English keywords in Cobol would make it easier to use, computer languages were brand new in the 1950s.

The Osmosian Order have created an English-like language, plus implementation and IDE written in their language, that is the best of its kind I have seen (I have only read through the compiler source and not written any non-trivial code). The Attempto project would be a good starting point for anybody looking to create an even more ambitious ‘English’ compiler.

Erlang is one of those languages whose usage continues to quietly grow and spread. Having a widely available usable compiler is a necessary but not sufficient condition for a language to grow and spread, the language has to be very good for solving an important and commonly occurring problem. Erlang supports language-level features (i.e., not library calls) that make it relatively easy to write programs that create and manage processes.

Things to read

Object-Oriented Software Construction by Bertrand Meyer (get the shorter, more readable, 1988 edition).

Representation and Inference for Natural Language: A First Course in Computational Semantics by Patrick Blackburn and Johan Bos (an early draft).

Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English by Douglas Biber, Stig Johansson, Geoffrey Leech, Susan Conrad, and Edward Finegan. For people who need to move up from reading dictionaries.

The Semantics of English Prepositions. Spatial Scenes, Embodied Meaning and Cognition by Andrea Tyler and Vyvyan Evans. Full of delightful examples, targeting a tiny fraction of the language, that are ideal for illustrating that English is not at all simple and unambiguous.

Plain English Programming by The Osmosian Order of Plain English Programmers (I found the compiler source more readable).

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